1 John 2:8-11
The contrastive light-darkness theme in 1:5-2:2 is further developed in the next subsection (2:3-11). Again, the principal point of the contrast is to demonstrate the difference between true and false believers. Two points are made about the false believers in 1:5-2:2:
- They claim to have union (lit. common-bond, koinwni/a) with God, and yet “walk about” in the darkness (of the world), rather than the light of God (1:6-7)
- They claim to be without sin, failing to acknowledge the existence/reality of their sin, without which it cannot be removed/cleansed by the spiritual power of Jesus’ sacrificial death (i.e., his “blood”) (1:8-2:2)
In all probability, the author is aiming these comments specifically at the opponents he mentions in the “antichrist” passages of 2:18-27; 4:1-6. As discussed in the previous note, the ethical-religious orientation of the idiom of “walking about” (vb peripate/w) refers primarily to the great dual-commandment in 3:23-24. That is to say, whether one “walks about” in light or in darkness depends on whether one is obedient to the two-fold duty (e)ntolh/) that is placed upon believers. Here in 2:3-11 it becomes clear that this, indeed, is the author’s focus and point of reference.
As he states in verse 3, the true believer is one who keeps the e)ntolai/:
“And in this we know that we have known Him: if we keep/guard [vb thre/w] His e)ntolai.”
The noun e)ntolh/ is usually translated “command(ment)”, but more properly refers to a duty that is placed upon a person to complete. In the Johannine Gospel it refers specifically to the duty/mission which God the Father gave the Son (Jesus) to complete on earth (10:18; 12:49-50; 14:31; cf. 19:30). However, in the Last Discourse, the focus shifts to the duty which falls upon the disciples (believers), according to the instruction which the Son, in turn, gives to them (13:34; 14:15, 21; 15:10-12, 14, 17); principally, this refers to the duty to love one another, following the example of Jesus’ sacrificial love.
This Johannine usage informs completely the use of e)ntolh/ in 1 John, the only real difference being that there is an expanded emphasis that encompasses both components of the great dual-e)ntolh/ (as defined in 3:23-24): (a) trust in Jesus as the Son of God (according to the truth), and (b) love for one another, according to Jesus’ own example. In the Johannine writings, the noun can be used in the singular (e)ntolh/) or plural (e)ntolai/), interchangeably, with no apparent difference in meaning. This is, perhaps, best explained by the fact that the great two-fold duty (of trust and love) can be viewed as either one command or as two.
The similarity of expression between verse 4 and the earlier declarations in 1:6 and 8 would seem to make clear that, for the author of 1 John, sin (= “walking in darkness”) is defined principally in terms of violating the great dual-e)ntolh/:
“The (one) saying that ‘I have known Him,’ and (yet) not keeping His e)ntolai/, is a liar [yeu/sth$], and the truth is not in him”
In other words, the one who does not fulfill the great two-fold duty (3:23-24), required of every believer, is not a true believer. Such a person, indeed, sins most egregiously, even if they would think themselves otherwise to be without sin (1:8-2:2). This is an understanding of sin (a(marti/a [vb a(marta/nw]) that is quite different from how the world typically understands it (cf. the earlier note on Jn 16:9).
True believers complete the duty (to love), demonstrating that they are truly united with God, and so God’s own love is completed [tetelei/wtai] in them (v. 5). And, in so doing, the believer is following (“walking about” according to) Jesus’ own example (v. 6; Jn 13:34; 15:12ff). The author makes clear that this duty is nothing new, but corresponds to what believers have held (as their duty) from the beginning (v. 7).
The use of the expression a)p’ a)rxh=$ (“from [the] beginning”), along with the noun lo/go$ (“word”), is a direct echo of the prologue (1:1). As I have previously discussed, there is a dual meaning to this wording. Primarily it is Christological, referring to Jesus as Son who was with God “in the beginning” (Jn 1:1ff); secondarily, it is evangelistic, referring to the message about Jesus, going back to the “beginning” —the time of first disciples and the earthly ministry of Jesus.
To say that true believers hold (vb e&xw) this lo/go$ “from the beginning” (a)p’ a)rxh=$) has a similar two-fold meaning: (1) they have the living Word abiding in them (through the Spirit), and (2) they receive and accept the historical Gospel Tradition about the Word, preserved and transmitted from the first disciples.
The only way that one can speak of this duty for believers as being “new” is in the eschatological context of the light-darkness contrast (v. 8). The mission of Jesus (the Son), culminating in his exaltation and return to the Father, marks the beginning of a New Age. This is a view held by virtually all first-century Christians. The coming of the Spirit is the fulfillment of the eschatological expectation, implementing a “new covenant” for God’s people (believers). The Johannine writings evince a particularly strong sense of ‘realized’ eschatology—meaning that, for believers, the future events of the end-time are realized in the present, through the Spirit. This sense is expressed here in verse 8:
“…the darkness has led (itself) along [i.e. has passed along], and the true light already shines”
Though the world remains under the dominion of darkness and evil, this is not so for believers, who already experience the reality of Jesus’ victory over the world (Jn 16:33).
The general ethical language of 1:6-7 is now made more precise, with the idiom of “walking about” in the darkness defined specifically in terms of a false believer who hates (vb mise/w) his “brother” (i.e., another believer):
“The (one) counting (himself) to be in the light, and (yet) hating his brother, is (actually) in the darkness until now.” (v. 9)
This clearly refers to a false believer (cf. the use of yeu/sth$ in v. 4), who considers him/herself to be “in the light” and yet is actually “in the darkness” (and has been so all this time “until now”). The author further explains that “hate” really means a lack of love, a failure to show love; this is the opposite of what characterizes the true believer:
“The (one) loving his brother remains [me/nei] in the light, and there is not (any thing) in him tripping (him up);” (v. 10)
As throughout the Johannine writings, the verb me/nw (“remain”) has special theological (and Christological) significance. It refers to the abiding presence of God the Father (and the Son) in the believer, and of the believer in the Father (and Son); this abiding union is spiritual, being realized through the presence of the Spirit. In contrast, there is no such abiding for the false believer; rather, he/she is simply lost in the darkness, wandering about blindly:
“but the (one) hating his brother is in the darkness, and walks about [peripatei=] in the darkness, and has not seen where he leads (himself), (in) that the darkness (has) blinded his eyes.” (v. 11)
The language and imagery in this verse echoes the words of Jesus in Jn 12:35 (cf. the discussion in the prior note). The motif of blindness is a natural extension of the Johannine sight/seeing theme, and also features prominently in the Gospel (chap. 9), drawing upon historical tradition(s) regarding Jesus’ healing miracles (cf. Mk 8:22-23; 10:46ff pars; Matt 11:5 par; 12:22; 15:30-31; Lk 4:18).
The false believer is thus one who fails to show proper love to other believers; in this way, he/she may be said to “hate” them. This way of framing the matter is crucial to the author’s rhetorical purpose and strategy, especially when he comes to deal with the ‘opponents,’ and the crisis (within the Community) which he feels compelled to address. However, it is noteworthy that, here in the opening section (1:5-2:17), he couches his introduction to the crisis within a more general ethical-religious instruction. In the next daily note, I will explore this aspect a bit further, looking at his instruction to believers, regarding the world (o( ko/smo$), vv. 15-17.